Why Liberalism Failed. Patrick Deneen.

Deneen, Patrick. Why Liberalism Failed. Yale, New Haven, 2018. NF;1/20

The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference in age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction.

– Edward Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

In my life I’ve seen the United States the uninvaded winner of a world war, fill its cities and towns with wealth and well-being unprecedented in world history, confront and eventually defeat the only other world superpower, fall into conflict over its imperialism, and eventually feel its world domination slipping away.

Observing all this from close-up but outside, I’m embarrassed to see representatives of two old and opposed ideologies blaming one another for what’s going, and will inevitably I’m afraid continue to go, wrong with the wonderful United States. Ordinary citizens loudly sometimes viciously support their candidates strongly allied with the Right or the Left, and popular and academic authors publish angrily the reasonable and not-so-reasonable points of view of both sides.

Most objective observers would agree with this book’s author Patrick Deneen that things are not going well: “the political system is broken and social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap increases between wealthy haves and left-behind have-nots, a hostile divide widens between faithful and secular peoples, and deep disagreement persists over America’s role in the world.” But why this is happening has two diametrically opposed answers. What both sides seem to agree on is that somebody has to be to blame, and it isn’t us.

Deneen is a PhD in political theory who has taught at Princeton and Rutgers universities. Online pictures show him to be a good-looking middle-aged man. But since 2012 he has been a named professor at Notre Dame, a Catholic university located in an almost entirely Roman Catholic community at the extreme north of Indiana. There he apparently feels comfortable stating his arguments for the Right, based as suggested in the book’s title on the assumption that liberalism, which “has failed because (it) has succeeded”, is finished.

Dr. Deneen’s understanding of the opponent of what he clearly (but increasingly incorrectly) considers the status quo is unusual I think. He groups today’s conservatives and social democrats together as liberals, “first-wave” or “classical”, and “second-wave” or “progressive” respectively:

First-wave liberals … stress the need for scientific and economic mastery of nature but stop short of extending this project to human nature. They support nearly any utilitarian use of the world for economic ends but oppose most forms of biotechnological “enhancement.” Second-wave liberals increasingly approve nearly any technical means of liberating humans from the biological nature of our own bodies.


(b)oth “classical” and “progressive” liberalism ground the advance of liberalism in individual liberation from the limitations of place, tradition, culture, and any unchosen relationship.

Dr. Deneen explains that the aberration of liberalism started hundreds of years ago with the Enlightenment, and really got going in the 19th century with the conquest of irrational authoritarianism by political self-government and science. But he points out that innumerable angelic babies went out with that bathwater: nuclear families, individual local community cultures, faith in power beyond that of a human being, humility, the idea of absolute right and wrong, and freedom defined as a personal moral struggle to follow or find true value, as opposed to as the privilege of being and doling whatever he (she/they/we) wishes.

Further consequences described include pluralism or diversity, a powerful state to replace religion and personal responsibility, loss of a sense of place and time, and “(t)he unleashing of spontaneous, creative, unpredictable, unconventional, often offensive forms of individuality.”

I was starting to wonder what his solution was going to sound like, because the arguments put forward – in pretty formal academic language – felt oriented toward a return to a pre-rational Golden Age which for sure has not only never existed, but was available in its joys only to a tiny elite minority, in the style of Pericles’s Athens. But Deneen in his conclusion softens the strong repetitive traditionalist rhetoric:

loosening of social bonds in nearly every aspect of life—familial, neighborly, communal, religious, even national—reflects the advancing logic of liberalism and is the source of its deepest instability.

but later:

(l)iberalism’s most basic appeal was not its rejection of the past but its reliance upon basic concepts that were foundational to the Western political identity.


Liberty was no longer, as the ancients held, the condition of just and appropriate self-rule.

but later:

we cannot pretend that the age of liberalism did not happen or that its basic contours can simply be jettisoned in some sort of restoration of an idyllic preliberal age. That age never existed. (emphasis mine)

A lot like authors I’ve read promoting the Left, Deneen doesn’t like a utopian view of the future, and strangely to my ear has a chapter called THE END OF IDEOLOGY, which sounds like a chorus the Right and the Left would sing in harmony and pretend to believe, when I would say if it took place most of the supporting logic on both sides would crumble.

We should be so fortunate.

The more I read of enthusiasts for the Right and the Left the more I suspect there’s a lot of what I would call “good” on both sides, and that it’s hard to boil the fundamental differences down to anything specific. Truth is, in the USA neither side likes the trouble their country is in, and both hate to have the — for some reason necessary — fixing of blame set down to their particular views of what’s politically important and important in life.

Hello, intelligent motivated people. Wake up! The world is full of opposing values, the exclusive realization of either of which is just silly. Examples are safety and freedom, Access to information and confidentiality, and of course the Right-Left granddaddy. Each side matters critically, but to believe in having both completely at once or in having either completely is just a ridiculous piece-of-nonsense mental disorder.

Here’s what I like about the Left: hatred of cruelty, help for the helpless, telling the truth, siblinghood of people (but go easy on the gender neutrality), irrational hierarchy is anathema, even-handedness of the law, belief in the danger of human harm to the environment, and recognition of rights and equality of women, strange people, and minorities.

But here’s what I like about the Right: personal responsibility, value and importance of the family, respect for tradition, standing up for yourself, the reality of human inequality, the value of common sense, respect for free enterprise, knowing that gender difference is biologically and psychologically real, and respect for (though not necessarily metaphysical belief in) mystical religion. I won’t prolong this by going into all the things I don’t like, for example “safe places” at universities where you can’t hear anything but radical progressivism, and active racial supremacy.

But there is something else that bothers me even more than that kind of ideologic extremism. It’s failure to go down gracefully, and a fixed exculpatory idea of blame, with its spiraling, mendacious, and harmful blindness.

I don’t see an end to it.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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